EU: Online Communities and Language Barriers

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Jan 6 14:41:49 UTC 2009

Trust, the EU and Web2.0

Posted by Mathew on 05/01/09

I was discussing online communities and the EU with some friends
before Christmas, when a few interlinked thoughts and ideas popped up,
stemming from an earlier post about "trust2". I thought I'd commit
them to screen while they were fresh in my mind, and ask for some

Trust and (election) turnout
Given that election turnout is - among other things - proportional to
the (perceived) relevance of the elections and the degree of trust
that the elector feels in the institution, a lot of people are looking
to the turnout at this year's EP elections as an indication of how
people trust that the EU is worth going to a polling booth for - that
it's both relevant and responsive enough to be worth the effort. The
size of the Eurosceptic vote, particularly given the recent launch of
the pan-EU Libertas group, will also be a keenly awaited indicator.

So far, so obvious. The point is that turnout has been dropping
steadily, and low turnouts indicate a lack of trust. And once trust
has been lost, no amount of brochureware will bring it back, simply
because nothing said by the distrusted institution will be believed.
In such circumstances, as set out earlier, top-down communications
just won't be enough.

Which brought us to bottom-up - or at least decentralised -
communications, and the role online communities could play in them.

Online Communities and Language Barriers

Everyone is interested in something. And the rise of web2 means that
there's an online community for every interest. Moreover, recent
research shows that with the rise of online communities, people trust
'people like me' more than anyone else (see previous post again). And
online communities bring 'people like me' together, wherever we are.

So what?

As commentators as diverse as and eurosceptics point out,
the 'European public space' hardly exists - there are national spaces,
within which EU affairs can be discussed to varying degrees, but
almost always from a purely national perspective. Just look at the
issues on which the Irish voted No.

There are also sectoral spaces within the national, which could
provide a good platform for an informed EU debate on the sector of

The Internet adds a new dimension to this sort of space. While they
still focus on sectoral issues, online communities are no longer
limited to one country. 'Community' is no longer limited by geography
(the people in your village), because online communities bring
together people concerned with an issue, wherever they are.

Within Europe, however, these communities are limited by language,
although plenty of non-English speakers contribute to mainly
English-speaking communities to improve their readership (cf. number
of non-EN bloggers blogging in English on While
language barriers do not map exactly to national frontiers, they
nevertheless limit the emergence of online debates about the EU and
its policies, open to all Europeans. Moreover, there is a dearth of
decent, apolitical material which could underpin such a debate.

Bridging Online Communities in the EU
But such debates could be pretty useful, so let's make an assumption:
sectorally-focused online communities across Europe would welcome
support in overcoming language barriers to connect to similar
communities in other EU countries.

If this is true, it presents an interesting opportunity for a new
approach to EU communications. By helping bridge the language gap
between different online communities in the same area of interest, the
EU would support cross-EU exchanges of best practices, ideas and
knowledge, as well as support a debate on EU policy in the sector of

This alone would demonstrate EU added value, but it would also allow
the EU to explain the logic of EU added value in the communities' area
of interest. I'm not talking about propaganda or brochureware here.
For an EU policy or programme to be approved - at least, in theory -
it has to be underpinned by a logic of subsidiarity. In other words,
there needs to be a logic underpinning the policy or programme that
ensures that the EU will add value by adopting it.

That logic is rarely explained clearly to the wider public, but when
it is, at least in my experience (EU research activities, mainly),
most people see it pretty easily. This case needs to be stated
clearly, without propaganda.

For such a strategy to work, EUROPA must therefore first clearly
explain EU Added Value to non-specialists in their areas of interest,
preferably in their language. Without such a 'bedrock' document to
refer to, any online discussions will be ill-informed, and hence
rather useless.

Given that (and it's a big given), following this strategy would mean
that the EU would:

go to where the people are, rather than expect them to come to the EU.
help connect online communities in an area across language barriers,
supporting useful information exchanges between people in 27 countries
simultaneously explain and demonstrate the EU's relevance and added
value, to people in the areas they care about.
This is therefore a long way away from brochureware/propaganda
websites, and of 'quick win', press-friendly stories which do nothing
to explain why the EU is active in areas as diverse as research,
healthcare and agriculture.


Implementation of such a strategy could be fraught. Done clumsily (or
worse, secretively), it would blow up in the EU's face - just take a
look at how suspicious some online communities can be. So what
principles would such an initiative have to follow? What traps would
have to be avoided? More practically, how would the language bridging
work? Any examples out there already?

N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to
its members
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner
or sponsor of
the list as to the veracity of a message's contents. Members who
disagree with a
message are encouraged to post a rebuttal. (H. Schiffman, Moderator)

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list